Written evidence submitted by Cornwall Museums Partnership


Written evidence to the DCMS Select Committee on the impact of Covid-19 from Cornwall Museums Partnership

May 22nd 2020

Cornwall Museums Partnership is an independent charitable incorporated organisation, formed in 2015 to provide leadership for Cornwall’s museums; to support them, represent them and give them a voice. Our purpose is to create positive social change with museums.

There are over 70 museums in Cornwall, 34 of which are Accredited, more than any comparable region in the country. Most are independently run and have little or no public subsidy.

Our submission has been compiled in consultation with museum directors, staff and volunteers from across Cornwall.

What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?

All museums in Cornwall were closed to the public from 21st March onwards, some had already closed during that week. Some, which are not entirely reliant on trading income, continue to operate remotely offering a range of online activities and support for local communities, for instance Falmouth Art Gallery is delivering art packs to families identified as ‘at risk’ in their community. Whilst there has been an increase in digital activity, museums in Cornwall have, by and large, ceased all regular public facing activity. Staff and volunteers are continuing to complete essential checks of their buildings and collections. At the time of writing, only a very small number of staff are working on site. Staff working from home have quickly developed systems to work remotely, although poor IT equipment is hampering some. Remote access to collections information is impossible for most museums here due to a lack of IT infrastructure; this undermines museums’ ability to share their collections online.

Lockdown came at the start of the tourist season for Cornwall. Winter is a quieter time for museums here, most of the small volunteer led museums close and the larger ones are reliant on the income earned during spring and summer to see them through the year. The prospect of closure from March into the summer is being described as the equivalent of ‘3 winters in a row’. Some museums in Cornwall earn 80% of their income in the summer months. The cumulative losses of spring and summer trading will be profound. Perversely, those museums who had successfully diversified their income streams (e.g. through shops and cafes) and were less reliant on public funding, are those which are most at risk from the loss of income incurred by closure. Many museums’ biggest concern is whether they will be able to generate sufficient funds to see them through the winter of 2020/21. The costs of caring for collections and museum buildings have not diminished. Museum directors have described feeling ‘overwhelmed’ and there has been a tangible impact on the health and wellbeing of staff, both those who are continuing to work and those who have been furloughed. Over 2000 volunteers were active in museums prior to COVID-19. In large part, museum volunteering, and the benefits this brings to wellbeing for many (mainly older) people in Cornwall, has come to a halt.

The museums sector is supported by a range of freelancers, from film makers to artists, evaluators and project managers. We have been contacted by people who have lost all their work as a result of COVID-19. The cultural and commercial creative sectors in Cornwall, like elsewhere, are closely interlinked. The ceasing of museum activity is already having a detrimental effect on small and micro businesses who are part of the cultural sector supply chain.

Several museums and freelancers were planning to submit projects for funding to Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The closure of project grants and diversion of funds to emergency funding streams is also having an impact on museums who cannot progress initiatives designed to improve their longer-term sustainability and in which they have already invested significant time and money.

The museums sector in Cornwall is diverse; it is made up of over 70 independent organisations with a range of governance and business models. Eligibility for government and arms-length bodies’ support is mixed. Cornwall Museums Partnership has been playing a vital role in supporting museums to navigate the multiple options, some of which have not been straightforward to access:

For the vast majority of Cornwall’s 70+ museums there has been limited or no financial support available. We know of one museum which has made a successful claim to its insurers.

Cornwall Museums Partnership is facilitating a Museums Reopening Forum comprising museum directors from across the sector who are starting to explore the feasibility of reopening following government guidance that museums may be able to open to the public on the 4 July.

In summary:

What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?

The museums sector in Cornwall was financially vulnerable before COVID-19. Many years of underinvestment have resulted in buildings in poor repair, low wages and stretched staff teams. These museums are practiced in doing a lot with a little.

Longer term, we are concerned about the following impacts:

We are asking for the following:

• What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid-19?

Emergency support from lottery distributors has been welcomed. However better coordination between them to avoid additional work for applicants would be helpful. Some organisations have had to apply to two funders knowing they can only accept an offer from one. 

A flexible approach which enables regional decision making is critical. There are several distinctive factors at play in Cornwall which are not necessarily replicated in cities or London, for example the extreme seasonality of tourism, a more elderly and vulnerable resident population than the national average, a reliance on older volunteers and local communities who are fearful of a resumption of tourism.

Systems or approaches which are designed for large organisations, with large buildings and big staff teams, will not work here. Support from DCMS should enable equitable access to museums for those across the country, not just those who reside in big cities.

We have welcomed the opportunity to explain these distinctive regional conditions to funders like Arts Council England and the Heritage Fund. This information is hard to convey in standardised surveys. One museum director said: ‘I can’t fault the support we have had at Officer level from NLHF’. Museums have particularly valued the efforts staff at both Arts Council England and NLHF have made to support them.

• How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to

deal with future challenges?

  1. Lockdown and the restrictions on public movement give us cause to reflect on what is available to us locally. The vast majority of museums in Cornwall are community museums. Their concern for and service to their communities is what is driving much of the decision making about their future operation. Yet in our sector these museums are often seen as the ‘poor relations’. It is time to review the policy and strategy towards local museums and rebalance the hyper-concentration of investment in metropolitan centres which undermines regional efforts to create sustainable communities. COVID-19 must be the moment we prioritise museums who serve their communities and rebalance investment against the things that matter: people, communities and the planet. COVID-19 must not be the moment where we throw already impoverished regional museums to the dogs. It must be the trigger for new policy which re-balances investment and recognises the critical role that regional museums can play in the recovery of their communities.
  2. Since lockdown museums across the UK have rushed to put content online. This has been mixed in quality and not necessarily informed by audience needs. At CMP we have been supporting museums in the smart use of tech for the last 5 years. We believe that online experiences should be designed specifically with the ‘online space’ in mind. There is an opportunity for DCMS to incentivise innovation here, particularly working with smaller organisations who may be able to work in more agile ways than larger institutions. Existing innovation funding needs to be made accessible to museums of all sizes.

At CMP we are exploring the applications of immersive technology and AI for museums and will be launching the Museums and Immersive Network in June 2020.

  1. We have known for years that like other aspects of the creative industries the museums sector is not diverse. The reliance on older volunteers is a structural weakness which has been thrown into sharp focus by COVID-19. At CMP we have been delivering a range of schemes to provide opportunities for a wider range of people to enter the sector.  By 2022 museums in Cornwall will have provided 25 apprenticeships and 15 paid trainee curator roles. It is now more crucial than ever that inclusive routes into the profession are delivered and that all museums are supported to provide these.